I know lots of people probably have New Year’s resolutions that involve getting in shape somehow. I thought I’d share a little bit about my own journey in this regard because my approach to food and fitness changed dramatically in 2016 and I thought it might be useful to others.
Two years ago, I lost a decent amount of weight on a deprivation diet. I went to bed hungry every night and spent all my energy and willpower eating less than 1500 calories while exercising strenuously each day. As soon as I reached a weight I felt comfortable with, I went back to eating normally. Within a few months, my weight increased to what it had been before my deprivation diet, plus 10 lbs. I was the heaviest I’d ever been.
It was shocking and discouraging. But it shifted something inside me. I realized I’d been gaining and losing the same 15-30 lbs over and over throughout my adult life. I decided I was not super interested in doing it again. For the first time, I considered that, perhaps, my core problem wasn’t a lack of self-control or some internal moral deficiency, but that I had bought into disordered ways of thinking about food and my body.
If my life has a theme, it’s grace. Grace is at the center of everything I believe about who God is, what reality actually consists of, and how we are called to live in the world. It occurred to me that I was not giving my body much grace. I wondered how a grace-based approach to health might be different from a deprivation approach. I decided to make some deliberate shifts to my mindset and habits.
First, I had to confront the truth of my situation. I realized that my internal monologue about my body was drenched in shame. Because we live in a toxic, body-hating, objectifying, mass-media-produced culture, we learn to attach our worth to a number on the scale. My entire day could be altered based on that number. If it was lower than I thought it would be, euphoria. If it was higher, self-loathing and tears. A pound or two up or down had tremendous power.
I also realized that because my worth was tied up in weight, I had a disordered relationship with food–one that was, again, shame-based, because shame is a sneaky bastard and can seep into everything. I’d attached moral equivalence to different kinds of food: fresh fruits and veggies were “good;” treats or snacks were “bad.” When I ate fewer calories, I was being “virtuous;” when I ate more calories I was “cheating” or “being naughty.” I got caught in shame-fueled cycles of extreme deprivation and excess: all I’ll eat are green smoothies and chicken breasts for the rest of my life, I promise this time I’ll finally stick to it–and then, of course, when this proved unsustainable (because BLECH), I’d throw caution to the wind and eat all the things: cookies, chips, burgers, fries, donuts, whatever. Then I would feel so guilty, I’d make another grandiose vow that this time I’ll only ever eat kale and cucumbers until I die…which would last maybe half a day? I probably repeated this cycle 2-3 times per week on average.
I exercised from shame, too. Since college, I’ve had a regular habit of exercising. I genuinely like to exercise; it feels good. But my motivation for exercising was wrapped up in a punishment and reward system. I “earned” food through exercise; I exercised to “atone” for eating. Sometimes, I exercised to “punish” myself for “being bad.” I’ve had more rage workouts than I care to admit. At the bottom of it all was hatred for myself, hatred for my body, and a deep desire to be different than I was.
When I took inventory of this, I realized I was trapped. God’s grace had freed me from worthiness-based religious systems, but here I was again, seeking self-justification for my body based on cultural standards that are extremely hostile to bodies, especially women’s bodies. If I followed the cultural script, I would never be free of disordered cycles of thought and behavior. It was time to do something different.
First, I made the choice to stop weighing myself. If the scale had that much power, I would subvert its power by simply refusing to live under its tyranny. For many, many months I refused to care even a little bit about what the number on the scale might be.
Second, I intentionally and prayerfully sought to change my automatic internal monologue about my body. Every time I caught myself in an automatic thought about how unworthy I was because I didn’t meet XYZ Photoshopped beauty standard, I got angry about it. I let the anger motivate me to do the hard work of changing my thought patterns. I said, “Screw you, nonsensical cultural norm.” In prayer, I asked God to tear this lie out of my body, mind, and heart. I used CBT techniques I’d learned in therapy to help me counter the cultural noise. I sought to see my body as a gift from God, as something to be profoundly grateful for. My body allows me to think, to read, to write, to pray, to speak, to walk. It gave me my children. It is a miracle and a wonder. Gradually, my paradigm began to shift. I began to de-couple my sense of worth from my body’s appearance and to find genuine love for my body just as it is.
Third, I reframed my relationship with food. So if food isn’t about worthiness, and it’s not about punishment and reward, what is food about? Through reflection and reading, it occurred to me that food is about fuel. I eat to fuel my body properly so that I can have the energy I need to live the life God has blessed me with. I don’t need to earn food. I deserve to eat, and I deserve to eat enough. And, by the way, all food is fuel. There is no such thing as “bad” food or “good” food. Of course, there are ways we can source our food that have moral implications, but the food itself is morally neutral. It is not more virtuous to eat kale than cake. However, the quality and quantity of our fuel intake will be reflected in our energy levels and the overall functioning of our bodies, and that is worth keeping in mind.
But food is not just about fuel. That makes food utilitarian and dull, which neglects the emotional and social aspects of eating. So a second but equally important shift for me was to realize that while food is primarily about fuel, it is also about pleasure. Because of course it is! Food is delicious! It’s fun to eat! It’s an important social activity! But there’s a difference between mindfully eating for pleasure now and then and compulsively eating as a response to every emotional experience, from sorrow to joy to boredom. This small but important distinction allowed me to begin to exercise true moderation in my eating choices. You had better believe that on Christmas I had all the dips, crackers, prime rib, buttery mashed potatoes, cookies, and pie I wanted. But this kind of mindful indulgence just for the joy of eating is now an occasional occurrence instead of a regular pattern fueled by deprivation and shame. By the way, I enjoy food much better now, too, because it’s guilt-free.
Fourth, I shifted my motivation for exercise. The key here was to begin to see exercise as a way to care for my body instead of a way to punish it; to work out from love instead of hate. I changed my fitness goals. I no longer tried to hit a specific number on the scale. Instead, I made performance goals. My goal in 2016 was to be able to do a regular push-up (not from my knees). I reached that goal a couple of months ago, and can now do 20! My 2017 goal is to do an unassisted pull-up. I want to be healthy, to have energy, to breathe well, to sleep well, to eat well, to live well. Exercise helps me do that. It’s a positive act of love and self-care.
This post isn’t as theological as perhaps we’re used to on Saying Grace, but I think the way we think about our bodies and care for ourselves has deep spiritual implications. I know there are many people making New Year’s resolutions to be more fit and healthy. That’s great, but I’d encourage folks to think about ways that our motivation for doing so comes from a place of shame instead of love, grace, and gratitude. I’m still not perfect at this–old patterns die hard–but it’s been such a welcome shift. Fitness is nice and health is a gift (that sometimes we might not have through no fault of our own), but at the end of the day, we are loved, claimed, redeemed, and made whole by God, not by the number on a scale. Our identity is in Christ. And that is always the very most important thing.
Some Additional Thoughts and Resources
I debated including this section of my post, but I decided I would include it as an addendum, in case it’s helpful to anyone. A note that I have no financial motivation to share the resources I’m mentioning here, I’m just passing them along in case they can help others, too.
I spent 3/4 of 2016 shifting the way I thought about my body, food, and exercise. One resource that helped me was a closed Facebook group called Eating the Food. I didn’t comment much there, but spent time just reading the posts and internalizing the mindset. A lot of folks there swear by the book Intuitive Eating. I read a few blog posts about Intuitive Eating and found it interesting but never got super into it. It might be worth checking out, though.
Once I had established healthier ways of thinking, I felt motivated, from a place of love, to increase my level of fitness just for the joy of it. I discovered a resource called Eat to Perform that provides nutrition and exercise resources and coaching. I found that their overall approach is very compatible with the shifts I made last year. For example, food is fuel; there is no such thing as “bad food” vs. “good food;” and it’s okay to eat for pleasure and enjoy yourself. You never have to “make up” for a day of pleasure eating, you just get back to your normal eating habits the next day, or even the next meal. If you have specific goals in mind, it does involve tracking food and, perhaps, body composition. In September, I got the scale back out, which I made me very nervous initially. But I discovered that this number is just information for me now, not a judgment of my worthiness. I still don’t have a “goal weight” but, as I mentioned above, performance-based goals. I also started a lifting routine I got from them, which I’ve enjoyed very much. Anyway, could be worth looking into.